All posts by Steven Augustine

Dolores

dolly 

I remember everything about Dolly the first time I saw her and almost nothing about my self. Was I happy? Sad? Confused? Lonely? Driven? In great shape still or a wreck like I am today? Hairy or hairless? The prince or the toad? I can’t seem to remember being anything other than the bitter old me I’ve become. Useless old animal hands. Blessed is the forgetting. But I remember Dolly, what Dolly looked like, the tensile strength of her warm grip and that everyone in those days was walking around with a telephone. Talking not to the phones but to each other! The phones were merely a medium. You won’t know what I mean by that. You’ll shake your heads; you’ll wink at each other.

Too much has happened. Maybe it will come back. I will come back. As I talk about it. Get it off my chest. They told me to record my thoughts, all of my thoughts, don’t be selective. They said that they’ll be the ones to worry about what to throw away and what to keep and despite the fact that I’m more than sure (delusions of grandeur, right?) that I can out-talk anything’s capacity to record me, talking about it might bring, in the archaic parlance of a long-gone culture, ‘closure.’ It might even be what people who once read better books than the people who once said ‘closure’ called ‘cathartic’. Submit ‘cathartic’ and the know-it-all thingy will inform you that it comes from the Greek, meaning ‘to cleanse.’ I could use some of that now. I look around me at all these gleaming white surfaces and let me tell you I feel like the rag that was used to clean them.

Twenty five years ago. There was a lot more sex then. It took two, three, maybe four people sometimes to do it, actually. You’re snickering at that. On the day in question, the day I’ll call Dolly Day (or D-Day) from now until the end of time, I had just turned thirty and had been feigning horror for weeks, for thirty is the last milestone one can truly afford to mock. So true. Thirty is like the girl you’ll never forget or the song you’d forgotten you’d loved more than any other song you ever knew. Thirty is as fragile as an egg; a skull.

The sun was coming out after a terrific little tantrum of weather, on D-Day. It was the middle of May and the cloudburst was winter’s parting shot. Like an antique soldier charging, bayonet extended, after all the bullets are gone. The Daguerreotype buffoon in his mustache and his long underwear. The sun that emerged was so vital and fierce that it murdered the clouds and got busy drying the sidewalks and I was so warm, suddenly. It was so suddenly summer. The sidewalks steaming. I carried my jacket over an arm and walked up the hill past the park, looking for a café for breakfast and the café that I chose was the café that Dolly was sitting in front of, soaking up the rays with her eyes shut, smiling at the sky. I’m thinking, in retrospect: I’ll bet the sky knew. You know? I’ll bet it winked at her.

People of the past strike us as being so stupid. We know everything they knew plus everything we know and they knew only what they could have known at the time. The people of the past are like country bumpkins. Excuse me but it’s like watching a retarded or blind person walking right for an open manhole. All you can do is gaze with open-mouthed incredulity. You almost have to laugh.

I remember trying to remember the word for omelet. I ordered an omelet which came with two diagonally halved slices of toast, a pat of butter, a decorative wedge of orange and a suspicious sprig of parsley. Suspicious because I had a friend who claimed that the parsley was often recycled; he never ate it but also never left it on his plate. He’d slip it in his pocket with compressed lips and a curt nod like he was doing his civic duty. His jacket pockets were full of brittle sprigs of parsley. He later turned out to have a screw loose.

Inside the café was dark with cigarette smoke and greasy light bulbs and a half a dozen tables of couples and trios in dark clothing at work on their cappuccinos and puffing on Marlboro’s and complaining about either or both of the new governments. I told the waitress I’d be sitting outside and she handed me a rag to wipe my seat with.

Dolores and I were the only ones in the sun. The sun’s news hadn’t yet reached the cryptish-cool depths of the café. And I stared while wiping the seat of a chair at a table that was neither too close nor too far. I stared because I thought her eyes were safely shut but on closer inspection I would have seen her eyelids fluttering, sneaky little thing but the rag I was using on the rain-beaded seat was too wet already and didn’t much help to dry the seat. It was wet and greasy and Dolores, who was peeking, laughed as though she was watching a Chaplin film. Then she handed me her orange scarf. Orange. As they say: there are no accidents in this clever world.

“Use this.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t.”

“I used it to dry my seat. Why shouldn’t you?”

“But.”

“Use it, take it home, wash it and dry it and return it to me tomorrow. As long as there are tomorrows, yes?” The trinket of her laughter. “I trust you to return it.”

I remember being nervous talking to her; not just because she was so beautiful but because of the age difference, which was obviously significant, without me having to ask. Anything seeing us talking… flirting… would be sure to think: what does this pervert want? With her? What a face she had. Her face the first time I saw it was half- dream, half-cat, voluminously-wrinkled like satin. Tooth translucence.

She was carrying already, of course. What I thought of as a stringent, crushing, unearthly beauty at the time (30! The last-call!) was, in fact, the oracular fingerprint. A fingerprint from the angel of that particular attitude towards extinction. The angel pressed his faint red fingerprint hard on the paper of her old white face and I mistook the blood-pattern for beauty. I gallantly offered to buy her a chamomile tea, if I recall correctly. Not that you’d know what that is. Hot water?

I keep telling them it was already in her the day we met but they don’t believe me. If I could speak with someone face to face I’m pretty sure I could convince them. Communication isn’t only about words but none of you seem to trust me; you feel safer on the other side of that glass, don’t you? But you aren’t.

 

 

.

dead girl

photo by SG

Henry waited until Mr. Buckler ducked into the storage room hunting for cigarettes before he took a peek at the girl on the table again. A closer peek. My first naked girl, he thought, and she’s dead. Even worse, she was pretty. Very pretty, with a big round reddish Afro and a perfect black body, but she was dead. Henry was a virgin and she was dead.

He noticed that her earlobes were attached (a trait they’d concentrated on in genetics his junior year), and her arms were lightly silky with straight black hairs that barely showed against her very dark skin. Her arms were crossed at the wrists, hands joined like a bird with tapering wings tensed over her stomach. To forestall the inevitable glance at her vagina he concentrated on her navel, the ebonite iris that folded into itself with wasted precision.

She was long and slender and looked weightless-but-durable. Her bush was a copper coil like material out of an old radio and her lips were all-but shut in an eerie smile of endurance; a thin white crescent of clenched teeth exposed where the lip curled back, a sneer at the living.

She had small breasts but big nipples. This shocked the boy, who tried his best not to look, though her nipples were so big it was embarrassing. They were so big and warm-looking, so seemingly capable yet of what they were by design so intended to do…it seemed to him that by their fact alone the dead girl couldn’t really be dead; not with perfectly good parts on her still. The clear-lensed eyes and jointed limbs and elegant fulcrums of jaw and hip. He just didn’t associate nipples with death in general and certainly not big ones like that, though he’d never seen in life a living pair with which to compare them.

He thought he might recognize her, but then again don’t all pretty girls look familiar, at first glance?

When Buckler came back in the morgue with a toothpick stuck in his rubbery mouth, he found Henry with his back to the room, mysteriously facing the radiator by the ramp door, bent forward at the waist with his knees straight and his hands in his pockets, staring down into the spider-webby gap between the radiator and the wall in a non sequitur of concentration.

“Yo,” said Buckler.

Henry responded without turning. “Georgia,” he said, and cleared his throat, “Georgia wants me to paint the wall in here pretty soon and I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to paint the wall here behind the radiator.”

“Oh man,” said Buckler, sauntering over with his hands in his pockets and his hat tilted way back on his head, “It’s a bitch alright.”

Buckler was a man who could stand and stare at the wall behind a radiator all day if he had to. Henry was greatly relieved when Aunt Georgia summoned Buckler over the intercom instead, speaking so softly that this unusual discretion implied the wounded presence of clients. Probably the N.O.K.s of the dead girl herself, to whom they both had their backs at that moment.

“Ed,” reiterated Georgia, just audible over the intercom’s hiss.

Two handsome black ladies under so much foundation that they themselves resembled the resplendent dead were seated in front of Gil’s desk, sniffling at wads of the perfumed tissues Georgia bought in bulk from Newark. In fact the tissues discarded and at their feet were so smudged with dark it was almost as though the ladies were in blackface. Georgia produced documents to sign, knowing exactly when to slide what across the desk towards whom. She must have summoned Buckler in case one of the handsome ladies fainted, though his posture insinuated less a comfort than a deterrent. He stood beside Georgia behind the desk, scratching an elbow and dreaming of lunch.

Later, Henry wondered if it was a trick of the light, or if the girl had contracted somewhat in the five hours since the two of them had first met? Were her knees a little higher, her arms crossed tighter and her elbows tucked in a bit more? Yes, he thought. Bracing herself against a shock that could come any moment.

Her color too. She seemed ashen…grayer…even correcting for the dramatically different lighting he was now seeing her in; the candles that had replaced the sun. There were sunken circles around her eyes and a rough and ugly dullness in the hollows of her cheeks that looked like ghoulish makeup…sparingly applied but noticeable nevertheless. She was beginning to look very much dead, in fact, whereas a large part of the shock he’d experienced when first seeing her was how she didn’t really look dead at all.

In violation of the courtly respect one accords certain chemicals gathered in the embalming room, Henry had placed and lit a few candles along the sink to give the dead girl the benefit of their softer light. Upstairs, safe in a duvet on the hottest night of the year, blasted by the snowless blizzard of air conditioning, his Aunt was watching The Tonight Show with her eyes closed. The chit chat and laughter.

The first candle struggled and guttered in a pool that spread and spilled into a solid down the front of the sink, subtracting light by a fine degree, and Henry aware, suddenly, of the passing of time. Not the years but the hours.

Sarah is Five-ish

photo by S

You expect a clockwork metropolis resembling dirty stacks of old wedding cakes. It’s a surprise riding into Vienna from the airport on the shuttle and seeing miles of heavy industry instead. Silver pipes and vast white tanks and smokestacks protruding from asphalt plants and refineries. There was a premonition of this already at the airport because the horizon is ringed with the rust-tinged edge of an inverted bowl of old industrial weather. The last thing you’d expect of the former heart of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire is to be reminded of pre-EPA Pittsburgh in its sky-killing heyday but life is just one long surprise for the living, isn’t it?

Further in, at the center, in the area around the Stephansdom (the cathedral), things look more as they are supposed to. Vienna is a closer match for “Vienna” here: the plaster-pallid coachmen are top-hatted and their Fiackers are brightly enameled in greens or reds and heavily trimmed in black. Some of the Fiackers, drawn by two-horse teams, are so black they look like funeral carriages, never more so than when the horses drawing one of the grandiose things through crowds across Graben, the old square, are pure white.

Sarah and I are having a rest on the long lawn in front of the Votivkirche. Sarah is five-ish. We watch as a bespectacled file clerk in short-sleeves and stiff-legged pants goes from girl to girl, snapping photos with the barest minimum of subterfuge. Every three snaps or so, he pretends to take a picture of the church, or a tree, as long as the church or tree happens to fall within the sight line of an interposed girl showing skin. He makes his way around the park, barely able to control his excitement at capturing all these soft white girls and their long limbs laid out browning in the sun.

In the sun it feels like late spring but in the shade it feels much colder, as though patches of snow should still be visible in the trees and on the grass. The man snaps his fill of girlflesh and eventually disappears into the Votivkirche, following two tiny things in tulip dresses with their unsuspecting parents who are entering the whispery dark no doubt with the unironic intention of prayer. Sarah and I stand up, brush off our bums and leave the park as the bells begin their robust work at noon. I am feeling a bit hungry.

Sitting in The Café Braeunerhof, I’m struck by the paradox that the service is both far ruder and infinitely more polite than what I have come to expect in Berlin. The waiters in Berlin espouse the rights of man and bodily refute the very notion of service; what are your pennies compared to their self respect? They slouch and mumble while serving and your manners devolve to the level of the service. Viennese staff hold the clientele to a much higher standard, for service is a form of mastery in Vienna. Sarah’s plate of scrambled eggs comes with an implicit command not to play with her food and I’ve never seen her use a fork so adultly. For myself I’ve ordered a sausage filled with cheese and served with a tin of beer, known in jolly Viennese slang as An aatrige mit a blech…  some pus with a tin.

Sarah says, “Aunt Iris has two big horses, a black one and a white one, like the ones we saw with the carriage, Henry,”  but I tell her that isn’t true. Then she says, “But I saw them,” and I assert that this, too, is untrue. Sarah has never seen her Aunt Iris before, unless it was in photos so old that Iris herself was a child in them. And Iris definitely doesn’t have horses. She lives with a cat in a shitty little apartment on Hahngasse.

Leaning through the cook’s portal in his immaculate toque, and framed by steam, is a dead ringer for Paul Gauguin, bent nose, grease-paint mustache and everything. Earlier in the day we saw Richard Wagner in a light gray suit, shirt open at the collar, inspecting the tourists and shop fronts of Graben with an air of lordly tolerance, hands clasped behind his back, gray hair skirting the suit collar.

Half of the clientele of The Braeunerhof are phantoms themselves. There’s the grinning geezer with a lap-long beard he is not much wider than to the front, right and there’s the off-season Brunhilde, like a ship in her bosom-prowed dress, in the booth opposite, slurping her soup and there’s a dapper fellow with his Herald Tribune in the window under a fading magazine clipping about Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer who liked brooding over his coffee and a newspaper in that very spot. Bernhard is dead as a Mesopotamian now, ribs like a sprung umbrella… can no longer talk, feel, write or taste coffee. I wonder what he thinks about in that little room. I wonder if death was worth it?

When I ask Sarah if she wants a dessert she says no thank you, Henry. Declining the pleasure is her way of proving to me that she’s a good person I guess and this touches me terribly and I take her hand and lead her out of The Braeunerhof and onto the iron shadow of the cathedral. I almost make the mistake of offering a look inside the eternity-obsessed hangar with its gray recumbent saints and its vertebral columns but catch myself before the blunder. I’m relieved that she’s simply happy to walk in the new shoes I bought her. Relieved they don’t hurt.

The goodwill that being an English-speaking tourist elicits never ceases to astonish me. Sheepishly begging directions from one Viennese after another, we become not only progressively more lost but treated with greater and greater patience and sympathy, until I’m ready for the last direction-giver, a Muslim lady pushing her somber tram, to give us a kiss, cab fare to Hahngasse and a little mother’s milk for the trip. I come to the interesting conclusion that the landmark each person has given us to navigate by is calibrated to his or her respective social class or personality. Bank, kulturhaus, discount shoe store. The dark-robed Muslim lady tells us to turn right at the cemetery.

We are standing on a steep hill on a wide street in windy shadows when we notice a gray pasha in brown polyester, shiny-domed and grandiosely mustached, beckoning madly from a café table in front of the bistro on the other side. He is either the bistro’s owner, or some sort of local landmark, a colorful character busily writing himself into the oral history of the neighborhood.

“Where do you want to go?” he asks, dismissing my map with a gesture of gregarious scorn. He thumps his chest. “I know everywhere.”

I tell him the name of the street and he frowns. Soon, both of us are huddled over the map, gripping its corners like the wings of a bird we’ve snatched, for the purposes of divination, from the breast of the wind. A handsome matron in a cheerful scarf and a Burberry coat is just then stepping from the bistro and pasha intercepts her with one discreetly lateral move, blocking her exit and inquires, sotto voce, how to get to Hahngasse. The matron peers at Sarah, then me, registering, no doubt, the fact that the little girl and I cannot possibly be related.

“Do you speak English?” she asks, with a heavy German accent.

With five or six sets of conflicting directions to choose from, Sarah and I finally find Hahngasse. I think I remember the street number but how to get into the building to search for the flat? Her name isn’t on any of the buzzers. I buzz a random name and politely explain that I wish to leave a note for Frau Lott. Once in the building, we climb the staircase, ascending into a bowely-warm odor of cooking that harmonizes with the dark trim and carpet. On each landing I look for Iris Lott’s name, three different doors per landing, many of the doors astonishingly beautiful, ornate in the Belle Epoque style. On the fourth landing, two to go, Sarah says she’s tired so we take a break, sitting on the stairs and I wish I’d been prescient enough to buy fruit for her. Something.  She says,

“Henry, when we find Aunt Iris, will you stay with Aunt Iris too?”

I say no.

“Just me and Aunt Iris?”

And her cat. Yes.

“Will I see you again Henry?”

No.

She lowers her head to a resolute angle and says, logically, “Then I hope we don’t find Aunt Iris.”

We descend again to the front hall and find the mailboxes and there stands, on one of the boxes, on a strip of paper taped beside the name on the official nameplate on the box, in faintest pencil, M. Lott. It must be Iris but I don’t know what the “M” stands for. Does she have a name I’ve never heard her sister Sandy mention? Discoveries like this tend to take all the air out of me; doors opening onto doors opening onto doors towards a room of useless secrets; so I concentrate on the task at hand. But there’s no slot on the box that I might slip a note through (if I had a pencil and paper to write one with) . The mailman carries a master key, I assume, with which to open the whole bank of boxes in one go.

I’m trying to shimmy my business card through a narrow crack in the mailbox, an activity that looks suspiciously like a foreigner tampering with the Austrian postal system, a crime probably punishable with flogging, when we hear a key in the front door and I jump an inch in my skin. An elderly gentleman in a derby hat and a three-piece suit lets himself in, pauses to take in the scene and greets us with a loose nod and a “Grüss Gott” that sounds like a dying man’s terminal speech.

Sarah says, “That man scared me, Henry!” and I have to admit that he scared me too. But everything does.

The Patriarch

the-patriarch4

He’d been meaning to start a notebook with all such examples but the resolve to do so faded every time. The same with the general notion of keeping a journal. In school he’d had friends who’d faithfully recorded their thoughts and experiences, inspired to do so by a certain charismatic English teacher. He could imagine these friends as responsible old women and men of the future, clear-eyed and crisply dressed, validated by framed children and grandchildren as they angled pens over diaries on rolltop desks, recording in a fine clean script another day in each orderly life. The steady accretion of meaning.

Every attempt he made at starting a journal devolved into parody and then boredom. He always found it impossible to pretend that what he was writing during these attempts was unselfconscious and private and for his or its own sake. He immediately pictured an audience and what he should and yet couldn’t reveal and whether the style was literary enough. He’d lost track of the number of nice little moleskin notebooks he’d bought, only to leave enigmatic markings on their first few pages and toss them in the trash with a sigh of relief. And yet the urge to write things down kept coming back, a compulsion that refused to cure itself.

His grandfather, as dead as the Mesopotamians now, had kept a journal. Hundreds of volumes were found boxed in the basement after his death. They were stacked like bricks behind old luggage and the rusted treasure of a 1930s Tyco electric train set, an epic of secrecy recorded in stingy, leftslanting code. Secrets so faithfully kept increase in profundity until the eventual deaths of all concerned devalue both the secrets and the effort of keeping them and render the keeper quaint or absurd. A figure of vain pathos. Even if he started keeping a record there were so many important events that had lingered in vain for so long before disappearing completely from his thoughts, erased by subsequent moments of greater intensity but far less meaning,  usually to do with sex, the pursuit of which had occupied his twenties after an embarrassingly late start and precious little return on the investment, that to start now would only prove that his life was already largely forgotten.

Warned to get to the station early, he’d been up before dawn. Dressed in a strange cold room in fumbling darkness because he couldn’t find the switch. Borrowed flats were usually poor ones. Student housing or workspaces without bathtubs and in this case the only heat was supposed to have been provided by a coalburning stove he’d been afraid to meddle with. He could feel he could see his breath, moist as ectoplasm, dark as it was, dark as not being, or never having been or seen, as he blew on his hands as he polished the catechism of streets and corners and left and right turns in the path to the Altona station, the reverse sequence of the path to this flat inscribed on the envelope the key had come in. The envelope he’d carelessly tossed in the trash and which he had no intention of digging for. He got his clothes on and patted the floor around the mattress for any small possessions gone accidentally unpacked and found his passport.

The sound of the lock engaging as he shut the front door and the irreversible gesture of the key pushed back through the letter slot and the heft of a sack over his shoulder plus the rundown beauty of the hard blue sidestreets at dawn were the sensual pleasures of departure he always looked forward to. The selfpity he’d felt about having to wake in a strange cold flat before sunrise to make his train changed, quickly, as his head cleared, into a smug glee, the sense he was getting away with something he imagined having to do with disturbing the sleep of schoolkids with his bootsteps up the cobbled slope in a narrow pass between red brick buildings that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Chicago. The slot between the buildings like a flute and the rising birds the bubbles in it.

Booking a ticket the last minute for the New Year’s weekend had tripled the fare, straining his budget, which had kept him out of trouble in the end. His ears were still ringing from the witless fury of firecrackers on Saturday. The fucking things had bounced down the street and rained from apartments, the air a black sack of bright hot beads, the aggressive cheer of the Germans, their inherited urge to make war reduced to this loud slapstick with the meretricious beauty of pyrotechnics attached. So now it was Monday morning, day after the aftermath and his ears were still ringing. His boot heels loud on the cobbles. If as a child he’d have heard such bootsteps echoing outside his bedroom window at dawn on a school day he’d have dreamed a whole future of farflung adventures for the man in the boots, the sailor/troubadour/Christ figure of his childish imagination, but he himself was now this figure, or less.

When he boarded the train at Altona he found the carriage almost empty and the aisles still wet from a mopping. The vinegary disinfectant the Germans think smells fresh. He slid the compartment door open and saw that he had his compartment, which would normally seat four comfortably, entirely to himself, and the next thing he’d noticed was the weak oppression of a cheap perfume, the type with the faintest whiff of vulva about it, some working class teenager’s erotic Christmas gift. He saw the torn silver square of wrapping paper in the ashtray built into the window sill and he fingered it, imagining the smalleyed boy who’d hoped to receive pleasure in exchange for the offering. Feeling superior to this boy he’d dropped onto his seat and thanked his good luck in being alone. But now he thinks, staring at the Slav reflections on the window backed by rolling snowfields, that some version of this same thing keeps happening to him, over and over again and that it must be the fundamental scenario of not just his life but Life itself, this kind of twist, these mean little inversions of fortune,  the mournful catchphrase about a thing being too good to have been true.

The first stop after Altona he’d held his breath. Few climbed on the train and all of those who had walked right by the sliding glass doors of his compartment. So far so good. Sigh of relief as the train edged out of that station. The morning was lowceilinged and it shredded into a flurry over the tops of the old stone buildings he rolled past and then the flurry thickened as the countryside opened its hollowed flank to the tracks, the deathly ice of bronchial trees in a hardcream field fanning out.  The view from the train was splendid and evoked the euphoriainducing religions that predate all cities. He felt the euphoria himself, a feeling of pride towards existence and solidarity with the living world whether or not this world ever held him in its thoughts.

It was the fourth or fifth station, after twenty minutes of peace. Twenty minutes of the warm compartment and the clotting snow and old German lithograph view and him there drifting in his thoughts. It was then that his mood fell. As the train eased to a halt along a platform dark with the shifting jostle and rucksacks and hills of worn luggage several rows deep his thoughts all turned to shit. Lüneburg, the city near where they’d caught Himmler,  he knew that for some reason, all those fucking people, the jig is up. He gathered his duffle bag and the book he’d unpacked from it and drew himself up. He’d seen many young hatless heads in the crowd and many blondes at that so there lingered a good chance that the bad fortune of being on a train that pulled up to such a crowded platform would turn into the good fortune of a female shape as foretold in all those wet sessions alone with his disgusted selves. Maybe even a pretty one, with English, but not so much she was haughty, quick to correct him. On her way home after New Year’s. He’d had Germans attempt to correct his grammar more than once and the next time it happened he’d be ready for it.

But there they were, not a pretty girl at all, at the sliding glass door of his compartment, the father fumbling with the mechanism of the handle as though he’d never been in the 20th century before, scowling, shaking his big mop of graystreaked hair and scratching at stubble with the air of a mountain village patriarch, disdainfully ignorant and tough as old roots. The headscarved woman in a shapeless bundle beside him and then somebody’s grandmother and the chronically ashamed teenage daughter behind them all, lugging the stunned baby like a depressing cold lunch.

He couldn’t possibly have managed to disguise the look of horror they must have seen through the door the moment before they and their sole possessions crowded into the compartment with him. They heaved a suitcasesized toaster oven on the space beside him and then a clanking box of kitchenware on top. They were still stacking shopping bags on the luggage rack overhead when two college-age girls appeared in the doorway of the compartment like the final torment, frowning at their tickets and then at the compartment number over the door and back at their tickets again.  There was no doubt that they all would have gotten along wonderfully well together for the duration of the trip to Berlin.

‘I’m sorry,’ smiled the blonde, who was not sorry at all, in her ski pullover and tight jeans. She spoke in the formally condescending German she’d have used in a bakery. ‘I think there is somehow a mistake. Perhaps your tickets…’

The patriarch cut her off.  ‘You want to complain? Go get the police,’ he said, without for a second even looking at her or otherwise interrupting his work. He and his headscarved wife were securing things in the overhead while the daughter and grandmother sat on opposite ends of the facing banquette. The baby could have been a doll, or dead, for as much as it moved or made noise in the girl’s lap. The blonde blinked a few times and said, ‘This is not very polite!’ and she and her darkhaired girlfriend marched off.

For a long time after their departure he nurtured the hope that the girls had gone to fetch a ticket collector or porter but he knew it was more likely that, being young, they were flexible enough to find other seats and still not well-formed enough to know how to handle a confrontation so ruefully he pictured them sitting with their arms around pulled-up knees on the black-hard carpet with the rest of the student overflow in the dining car or some lounge, joking about it with handsome boys. American girls, especially middle or upper-middle class, would have handled it as an affront to their human rights. Would indeed have gone to fetch someone in uniform, the driver of the train if necessary. This was one instance when he’d wished for Americans or even the old kind of German.  But that last thought and its implications made him feel so guilty that he tried to catch either the grandmother’s or the teenage daughter’s eye to give them a reassuring smile as though it were in his power to give. But this didn’t happen. Not once in two hours of travel.

We hate because we are hated.

From right to left, reflected in the window, floating like slackjawed ghosts over snowscape, the teenager, patriarch, headscarved wife and old crone with sexy thick black hair in two plaits to her lap down her layered top. None of them had much to say and when they did speak in their coughing, swallowed language, whoever spoke would not look but continue to stare into the middle distance, just as whoever the remark had been aimed at would not so much as tilt a head or cock an eye to respond. Clearly, history was having its way with these people. He thought: that’s the mistake, the belief that it’s a constant roar of white noise that we’re all contributing to, all being affected by, all the time, forever. In fact, the sound of history being made is discrete, a sharp shock or a series. Gunfire, near or far. What was the suburban America of his and his parents’ youth but a safe haven from history? Where time is quiet.  Mute.

Several times the patriarch leaned over him, so close that the heat from his lap was felt; actually seemed to brush his cheek; and he handed first tangerines, then later salami and later still crumbly bread and cheese for the headscarved woman to prepare in her lap, tossing it down without looking. Mundane circus trick. When she passed the lobed tangerines to the family she made a perfunctory gesture of old world manners across the compartment at him but he smiled and he shook his head no, the smile wasted because she picked up the ‘no’ with her peripheral vision, and that was the first and last effort to communicate between the two camps. The American and the refugees.

The first fifteen minutes of the journey after their appearance stretched to accommodate what seemed like a week’s worth of thoughts. Three days back. Wandering the cold, surprisingly empty lanes of The Reeperbahn, all alone, in the late afternoon of the last day of the year, the sky already black, he had felt as cut off from any sense of human purpose or belonging as he ever had in life. He remembered feeling dizzy from it, the sense that it didn’t matter in which direction he chose to walk or how fast or with what facial expression or whether he bothered to remain on the sidewalk or suddenly walked into traffic: it truly didn’t didn’t matter. A vertiginous feeling. He’d thought: I could scream obscenities, or gouge my own eye out. What is it that holds everything together? You could slash a hooker’s throat with a boxcutter or use the same tool to slice your own thing off instead. The sun wouldn’t fail to rise the next morning.

So this is what they call Nihilism.

The hamburger joint with an Indian motorcycle gleaming in the window felt like a lifesaver after that train of thought and he’d realized he was powerfully hungry and with just enough money in his pocket to splurge on a grotesque meal of warm American plastic he crossed the street and pushed the door open and kissed the prospect of a discount handjob goodbye. The global American hamburger joint that the Germans he knew jokingly referred to as the American consulate. The very thought that he’d been saving his Deutschmarks for a handjob made him smile faintly as he ordered and it hit him like effusive praise from a ghost how young he was because the schoolgirl taking his order was not even young enough to respect him. He took his tray to a table at the window near the Indian motorcycle and watched the occasional clump of tourists tromp by through ankledeep snow, drunk and with their collars clutched, bored already at the sight of towering hookers dressed for Las Vegas marching in the opposite direction towards whichever sidedoor with a gray rainbow of accreted pisstains on its low right corner or whatever angerfilled car idling at a curb. He’d thought: it’s true, I’m young, there’s still time. Staring out the window and chewing that slop.

He glanced across at the headscarved woman, her man, the grandmother. In aggregate emotional age one thousand years old. But surely that’s a thought that only the old have: I’m young. If not old in years then old in chances lost. The grandmother with her carved brown face…  a face like something found in the grassless black circle under an apple tree. She’d done everything she was ever going to do and had the serenely blank expression of someone who wanted no more. She would go when they called her to,  easily. Who is the better human? The one with so little potential who fulfills it completely or the one with so much potential he can’t possibly hope to match it with real deeds, real accomplishments?

He was hounded by unformed talents. By his so-called potential and there wasn’t a so-called great book or movie or masterpiece of music that didn’t fill him with contempt and the thought that he could have done it, he could have created that, he could even have done it better. Nothing was beyond his reach. One simply needs a method. A technique. He could mock himself, though: I have the soul of a famous artist. The world looked, when it bothered to at all, and saw only a young man standing impatiently in the space the famous writer/painter/musician/film director was meant to occupy. A kind of place-holder.

He didn’t even have a job: he had the money his grandfather had left him. An amount just small enough, or so his grandfather had believed, to force the young man to find honest work to augment the stipend. But his grandfather had had no idea how cheaply he could live, or that he’d choose to live even more cheaply in Europe. Worse: in Germany. Where they’d threaded two bullets through the old man (then young), two bullets from opposite directions, accounting for the frogged brown arm with which the grandchildren identified him like something out of a bedtime story calling him Hoppy behind his old back. Pap Hoppy. The frogged arm, Pap Hoppy had once confessed, (with his back turned) had undercut his confidence and caused him to marry the first plain girl who’d have him. Not the formula for a happy life but the inspiration for a richly secret existence as recorded with patient care in journals no one would ever be able to read.

This girl, what was she, seventeen? Not pretty but very skinny which was attractive in and of itself. Skinny but gracelessly present in the chest, a dark line tracing the lipstick of her thin, resentful lips and her blond hair showing roots. With as much access to television as any teen North of Sicily she might have passed for American minus the shrewd expression. Worrying the dull baby’s little white fingers like prayer beads. Was that her little brother or little sister lying insensate in her lap and how had the headscarved mother, as packed away as an inherited football in layers of patches and repair tape, ever managed enough nakedness to conceive it? It would have been accomplished with a defecatory grunt in a dim room with grandmother’s black eyes shining like Pan’s from the corner. Or maybe it was the girl’s baby. He exchanged a look or two with her but there wasn’t enough imagination on the whole train or even the world to finesse those disinterested glances into any kind of flirtation.

Notes for a Story about What Happened

photo by SG

I’m going to tell you a lie and you’re going to believe it. You will have no choice. I will tell you the truth, too, but that you’ll doubt. Also inevitable. The lie will be seductive because it is something you already know.

I didn’t love her.

I got the call on the train, at lunchtime, and believe it or not I was actually watching the news (the Nth iteration of it) on a ceiling-mounted monitor as I answered the phone, swaying with the train. A Hollywood coincidence. The Malaysian with his infuriating grin. I was thinking give me ten minutes with that cunt in his padded cell. I was thinking ten minutes and a hammer. I could do it in five. Hello?

-Is this Steven?

She was five foot seven, about one hundred and twenty pounds. I don’t know if they weighed her after; what the procedure is; what she even looked like. Put her on a scale in a plastic bag. I do know that she’d just signed up for a fitness course and that is what always angers me when I think about it, the time and effort she wasted. Getting back in the game. But then some stupid cunt with his grand ideas. His belief system. Some vast sea of stupid cunts with their million raised fists called a belief system.

Note: the fistfight we got into in Limbo.

Note: also, the argument in class with Herr Wieland about the word “Jew” in the story and how I then lost my job over it. He hadn’t written the story: I had. It was a published story. Wieland claimed the term was pejorative.

Note: tie it together. Something about violence. But what?

-Is this okay? Does it hurt?

-No, it’s good. It’s okay, it’s good.

-Can she hear us?

-She’s asleep.

-We shouldn’t wake her.

-Are you saying I’m noisy?

-I’m just saying.

-You’re sweet.

But I’m not. I am what I am, and I was doing what I wanted to her, without asking first, on the gold batik bedspread on the fold-out sofa in her borrowed living room, capitalizing on her position of relative weakness as a single mother of 28 without any real career prospects. New age music down low. Or a recording of the ocean with gulls dubbed in. The inevitable candles. The inevitably post-coital, anticipated-with-genuine-dread looks of searching depth. The kinds of looks that make one’s face feel as though it’s crawling with tiny people. I buried my nose in her hair. Went to the bathroom. Anything to escape those searching looks. Jogging with Ginger the next day, I was too out of breath to go into detail. I said,

“What can I say? The earth didn’t move.”

“For you or for her?”

He gestured at a rain-glazed croissant of merd on the sidewalk and we veered. We usually veer together; this time we veered apart. Significant? Ginger, whose man-of-the-world self-image has a tendency to grate at precisely the moment I most need his worldly advice, said, “Any woman who lets you fuck her in the ass is the kind of woman you should never under any circumstance fuck in the ass.”

“So the only acceptable option is forcible sodomy, in your opinion.” I was so out of breath that it ruined my timing and killed the joke.

“Were you wearing a condom?”

“Were you?”

When?”

“Whenever.”

Last night she came back to me again: most of her hair burned off and half of her face crunchy black. I was thinking I hope I don’t see any bone. Don’t let me see the bones. Any skull or ribs or lidless eyeball. She was trying to kiss me and I was forced to be honest.

It was August of that year that I bumped into Indra while walking along Golt Strasse. I hadn’t seen her since the early part of the last decade, but walking along Golt Strasse on a Friday afternoon is a reliable method for bumping into long-lost Berliners of a certain generation. The veterans of this fossilizing in-crowd still haunt the area on weekends, shocking (and reassuring) each other with toddlers and wrinkles and receding hairlines, waltzing towards the same precipice with touching synchrony, clearing the way for the next great wave.

I knew her from the golden age on the cusp between my boredom and my stupid youth, an appetizing girl whose last name I never caught, one of the faces I’ll always associate with my first few ecstatic months in Berlin, before my increasing familiarity with the language, and its native speakers, ruined everything. Beware the expat who masters his German. We had always flirted and nothing more. We never risked touching (each assumed the other had fucked or been fucked too much), but had sometimes exchanged a certain kind of laden look on the packed dance floors of an era during which it now seems to me we all had been rather hysterically afraid to go home.

And here she was sitting in sunlight. That same black-haired girl, now a woman, or old enough to claim the title, sitting on a bench in front of a restaurant a few doors down from the café I had always seen her showing off in, looking almost exactly as she had a decade before. Half-Indian, father German, she was a mischling, as the Germans put it. Coin-colored, round-faced, voluptuous under spectacular black blades of hair. I jogged to her, grinning, and was rewarded with a crushing hug that felt more genuine than what I’d expect. Bent by the hug, I smiled meaninglessly at a toddler seated near her on the bench, hoping the child wasn’t hers, but she was.

“This is Jinny,” said Indra, introducing me to Jinny, but not Jinny to me (most probably because she couldn’t recall or had never known my name) as I took a place between them. I toasted Jinny with a Coke I ordered.

“To once being young,” I said, but Jinny just stared and Indra corrected me. She tapped her temple. “To staying young,” she smiled. “Both of us.”

Which made me feel extremely old. Several times during the conversation, Indra touched my arm and stared unwaveringly in my eyes and invited me to visit her in Bali. She painted a dreamy picture of a murmuring sea and laid-back days and Caligulan disco nights and I was touched to realize that she was looking for a man.

“Anyway” she said, as I eventually stood to leave, “Let’s hook up soon. We should really do something. It’s so good to see you again! Ciao!”

Jinny waved back (note: as though prompted) as I saluted a jaunty goodbye from the corner. It was the end of my lunch break.

I’d lucked into this incredible corporate gig, teaching creative writing to the executives of a company called Eurologika. The CEO wanted his underlings not only to speak and write English fluently but to be able to do so creatively. He wanted them to do that supposedly American thing called thinking outside the box. A dreadful cliché, yes, but I had a year’s contract.

Herr Weiss, Herr Brückner, Herr Richter, Herr Gumpenhölzl, Herr Wieland, Herr Woyczechowski, Herr Sonnabend, Herr Schlegel.

The first day (the class was on a Friday afternoon, in a conference room with a view of the canal, when most people with good jobs were already wherever they’d be spending the long weekend) saw me facing down the bemused tolerance/ mild contempt, for non-famous artists, of the typical German of a certain class. If you’re so good, why haven’t we heard of you? What is it that you do, exactly, that a hundred other people off the streets, with a little time on their hands, can’t do as well or better?

I turned the tables on them: what is it that you do?

“We design and manage systems protocols for capital storage and retrieval patterns on the Hannover model,” sighed Herr Wieland, the youngest in the room, whose headset never, in the three months I knew him, left the bluish egg of his balding head.

“Can you repeat that in plain English?”

He couldn’t. Pressing my momentary advantage, I said: “Your race, your class, your sexual preferences, national identity, earliest childhood memories, religion, education and professional standing are all stories that you have been told, and that you re-tell to others, without having a clue what the techniques and mechanics of storytelling are all about. I’m surprised you’d rather be so sloppy and haphazard about something you will do for every waking moment of your life. And in your dreams, too, and long after you die, possibly. You will be storytelling, but you don’t even really know how to. Is that a satisfactory state of affairs?”

-Is this Steven?

-Yes.

-Steven, you don’t know me. This is Indra’s sister Padme.

I was on the train during the lunch break on the ninth Friday of the class. Classes were held from 14:00 until 15:00, then a forty five minute lunch break, after which another hour or so until I dismissed them to fly off to Ibiza or Gstaad. On this ninth Friday we were critiquing the first bona fide assignment I’d given them: write a 600-word story about another member of the class.

Note: every single story they handed in was about me.

Note: exactly 600 words each.

I was staring at that little fucker’s monkey-grin face on the monitor. I’d assumed it was Ginger, calling with a new number. I looked at the phone and said,

-Excuse me?

-It’s about Indra.

A light dawned as I frowned at the monitor. Note: It’s astonishing how much thinking we’re capable of in a millisecond. Goosebumps. The coroners had shipped the recovered cellphones to the next of kin.

-Wow.

-I second that emotion.

-Your English is pretty good, you know that?

-I had good teachers.

-Is that was this is about? Free lessons?

-(laughs) I’m so glad I called you. Are you glad I called you?

-Of course I am.

-You’re not just saying?

-Would I tell you if I were?

-What do you want to do now?

Note: again the dream. She’s burning and moaning and I’m wondering if it’s pleasure. Does it hurt to burn? In the dream I’m not sure. I turned all the lights on afterwards and watched a little television before falling asleep again. Coda?

(Work this in as dialogue-possibly ironic: I firmly believe that you fake your own reality. What is a lie but the truth with a little talent? What is life but death pretending? When a katydid pretends to be a leaf, do we call that lying? The hawk moth caterpiller resembles a snake, and I resemble a hawk moth caterpiller. I lie, I get laid, I move on.)

Herr Schlegel, who looks like a JFK who’s made it to his 70th birthday with thick white hair intact and now only dresses in black, is confused. He is Herr Wieland’s picador, just as Herr Brueckner, with his off-puns and aphorisms, is the rodeo clown who breaks things up when I challenge Wieland’s arrogance; Wieland’s default pretense that any information he doesn’t already own is trivial. Everyone else is the audience. The coliseum. Schlegel says, “This story of yours, Herr Instructor, is it true?”

Note: classes were cancelled after the 12th week, but I was paid for the year.

“Define true.” At which, of course, Herr Wieland snorts.

“Did it happen as you have written it?”

“Does that matter?”

“If it is fiction, it is mere pornography. If it is true, I think, in all honesty, one must say the writer has no shame.”

“By revealing his truth, the writer reveals the reader to himself, Herr Schlegel. It’s a sacrifice we’ve been obligated to make since before Mr. Joyce.”

“Nonsense. There is nothing of me in this story!”

Wieland picks up his copy of the stapled pages and flips them until he comes to an excerpt, which he reads with such excitement, such theatrical disgust and sarcasm, that he can barely pronounce the words, let alone contain himself.

It’s the posture of submission that turns you on: the oiled flesh, brown as furniture, rich in the flamelight. The ass up and the head down with all that hair gushing forth, gushing out, a fountain of crude oil spilling over the edge and pooling on the Persian carpet at the foot of the futon, the face inclined politely away, gasping at the wall in a prayerful rhythm, the grunts of assent or helpless recognitions. So many groans are just prayer, and so much of prayer is just begging, and almost all begging is the music of pain. Her guttural prayers and my flickering shadow on her wall and those glistening streaks of her mud on me: what’s more exciting than that?

“Goatfuckers.”

Ginger, with his Jesuit upbringing, says “Don’t start.”

“Don’t start what?”

“Don’t start that intolerance shit.”

We are back in Limbo, our old club, after two months of swearing off the smoke and the sweat and the alarming influx of rich kids in from Zehlendorf, simply because there is nowhere else to go. Twice we’d tried places where the sensation that hit us like a wall of digital locusts as we entered couldn’t even be identified as music. We’d tried places that looked and smelled like the decadent version of daycare. Sheepishly, we returned to the passé nightspot we’d sworn off, and three Turkish types in payment-plan suits and pastel loafers, sunglasses mired in their highly flammable jet-black hair, have pushed across our view of the dancefloor, tugging their blondes by the rings in their noses. Two are blondes, actually, and one is not.

I finish my drink. “What intolerance shit?”

Ginger says, “Oh, come on. Remember the day Indra flew back to Bali? You were so fucking relieved you bought me dinner. And now you’re playing the grieving fiancé. Boo fucking hoo.”

I pretend not to hear and move onto the dance floor, parting a metaphorical curtain, doing my American dance. Loose in the shoulders. Impossible for Germans and alien to Asians and instantly identifiable. That and my very good shoes. I dance from the periphery in, eyes on myself, easing towards the center. The three Turks and their escorts are trying out their modern dance lessons in the middle of the crowd and I am locked on the best-looking girl in their menagerie, the taller, thinner, slightly embarrassed and attractively reticent one in dark slacks, gold pumps and ruffled white collar and sleeves. She can’t be older than nineteen. Tossing her hair. They must have kidnapped her. First you look, and then you look away, and then they look, and then they look away. There’s a rhythm to it until your eyes meet and you can all but predict the future.

.

children are not the future: the old are, obviously; are you stupid?

photo by SG

The hour was late, so late that he could expect either to witness unquiet ghosts walking the halls of the hundred year old house or fetching harlots fellating donkeys on internet porn. Okay, “fetching harlots” is grandiose. But he had an education. He wasn’t some whatever in overalls with plaster on his knees. He was unhappy with his girlfriend and what else was there to do? Other than be a voyeur to a donkey at this late late hour. Or watch the ghosts walk. Or let the ghosts watch porn.

He ejaculated to the volume-down sound of braying. He realized that he’d reached a sort of low point and the aftermath felt exactly like eating a stick of butter. Or two. You just want to back away from your own saturation. To masturbate to a brief film about a pretty girl putting a donkey’s penis in her mouth and gagging explosively on half a pint of probably caustic semen means what about how one feels about either pretty girls or donkeys? But what a great word.

Harlot.

-But donkey should be an adjective.

His girlfriend, Gwenda, asleep downstairs, was a lawyer. Sleeping a lawyer’s off-the-clock sleep, her spare-time sleep. A fitness fanatic with a nice enough body but a not-entirely beautiful face. In fact she was plain. In some lights she was not even that. Let’s be frank. While her worked-on biceps and trim waist were no illusions, her substantial bust had turned out to be somewhat of a mirage when he’d unwrapped it, greedy hands trembling, unravelling the bulges into lots of cotton wadding and air.

-What was the name of that song about vaginal moisture? A big hit. Early ’60s.

There’s cheap porn for those who like women and expensive porn for those who don’t and plenty for those who aren’t sure. Very few are sure. Like almost everything, it’s funny when you think about it because, think about it, the point is, okay, you sit through a film, not always short, waiting patiently for the payoff which is basically some male (human or dog or donkey) ejaculating. The chowdery or birdshittish or gasoliney semen, emitted by the spoonful or the cup. You’re saying you find this interesting.

Which is fine.

He was no male model but he was a lot better looking considering his gender than she was considering hers. In fact he was the best looking man she’d ever touched. Which may not be saying much etc. His relatively good looks were not an issue, initially, or, that is to say, they were an issue but in such a way that Gwenda benefitted from it. Call it Affirmative Action of the heart.

When he first saw her wearing that camelhair coat which rhymed almost religiously with her waved and buttery hair in the muted light of the subway tunnel under Christmas carols and timed festive electronics and everything. That stuff in the air called childhood. He knew straight off she wasn’t what you’d call attractive but she was something, in the aspirational competence of her effects, the hairshape and lipthickness and bustle-swell of the coat in its bosom, promising so much, though what, exactly?

-Da Do Ron Ron.

He used his sly system of saying hello to open things up. His system was I mock myself internally like Burt Reynolds while doing it but also he was quite serious in using that mustache voice he used that usually worked though the smallest part of him (the part he thinks of as his original infant humanity) felt silly. Hammy. But it worked.

-People are afraid of great actors.

It took him weeks to admit everything about her actual face to himself. By the night of full disclosure, when the makeup had grazed or sweated off and the roots had grown in and the wave had frazzled to lustreless wires, he was already, however, dangerously intrigued. He wouldn’t say smitten. Smitten was the word he was saving. “Smitten” he was guarding in a box.

-He had trained himself to speak in a lower register.

-He tweezed his eyebrows regularly.

When he made the decision to give off certain signals indicating he wouldn’t be averse to becoming the thing labeled boyfriend in her phonebook, it was with this in mind: that looks aren’t everything. And they aren’t. Weren’t. Are they? Were they? After the seven different kinds of hell his many moviestar-model-grade girlfriends had put him through, from his eighteenth year clear until the year before the night he pleasured himself watching a harlot giving pleasure to a donkey, he had come to the conclusion that a sweet-natured, forgiving and generous personality would be a welcome change in a bedmate.

No more dragon ladies, ice princesses, black widows or femme fatales. From now on: plain Janes and peppermint Patties. The Girl Next Door in an ugly suburb. He felt a sudden hunger for a lot more gratitude and much less condescension and coming to the conclusion that a ‘homely’ girl was the answer to his prayers felt like growing up. A Bar Mitzvah of sorts.

“Finally,” he thought to himself, as he kissed Gwenda’s wounded little underbite face that very first time after that sappy movie, a snowflake intact on her eyelid as he drew himself near, “you’ve learned your lesson.”

The smell of pine needles. His smile stuck shark-bulged in a blue ornament.

Things were great with Gwenda for the first few months. She laughed at many of his jokes and treated him to a detailed recap, every evening, of the day’s rich legal adventures. He discovered that during sexual congress on her living room carpet at a certain distance and angle from the floor lamp in muted light in the missionary position she resembled Meg Ryan, a famous actress of the era, but only in his suffused pre-orgasm deliria. This was a pleasant discovery.

He met her sister (slightly better looking but still rather homely though he did toy with the idea of etc), did most of the cooking, accepted expensive gifts and wondered if getting Gwenda pregnant was out of the question. He was toying with the voluptuous thrill of throwing his life away. The only thing that gave him serious pause was the thought of an ugly baby. Half-ugly at best. Accusing him with Gwenda’s small eyes and high forehead.

He shuddered.

One night, after the snow melted and all the childhood had vanished from the warming air, they fought rather passionately over something disproportionately trivial and she revealed herself, like a rainbow-colored cocoon splitting to reveal a fearsome black butterfly, as a strikingly effective bitch. Ugly faces are better at bitchery than beautiful ones, regardless of what the beautiful prefer to believe. He gazed upon the mask of her sarcasm-twisted features and thought: “She’s a bitch and she’s ugly,” and that’s when it dawned on him.

He said, “Do I look fat in this?” and her silence spoke volumes.

2.

Dearest Nate:

Perhaps I’m hallucinating on a grand scale, but when I go out in public and observe human beings at work and at play, I don’t see very much of this post-gendered world of yours that you defend against my arguments, as hard as I try (even squinting). For the most part, I see women/girls dressing up and/or pushing prams and I see men/boys horsing around, ogling cleavage, and scratching themselves. When I attend ‘fancy’ functions for people with better jobs and higher educations, I see women dressing up…and men ogling cleavage (and very discreetly, from time to time, scratching themselves). My married friends are either sexually bored-with-each-other and stable, or cheating like minks and totally comfortable indulging in passionlessly vicious verbal punch-ups in front of company.

I’m not saying I’ve never observed this state of PC Dyad Grace you seem to be eulogizing with your pep talks…I’m saying that PC Dyad Grace as I’ve observed it is generally larval, and, approximately six months into a relationship, moults its golden skin to become the twin brown moths of the lovable slob and the tolerable nag (before time gradually prefixes each adjective with an ‘un’ and an ‘in’, resp.)

The day I stumble into a happy, egalitarian, romantically sex-healthy relationship, I’ll lose about 70% of my friends, who will rightly consider my new found bliss to be a freakish and unforgivable betrayal. As post-humanly above reproach as my mate and I will be to each other, I’m hoping he’ll still get an atavistic thrill out of the fact that I can twist open jar lids, without much effort, that he couldn’t dream of budging. And me? I’ll get an atavistic thrill out of the way he looks dripping naked and pink after a shower. Anyway, you may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Hope this letter finds you safe, warm and very dry,

Ain’t college life wonderful?

(The sarcasm of a spoiled brat, I know)

3.

Thursday evening I am on my way home from the studio. It is about 9pm. Half a block from the front door of our apartment (the large one, the old one with high ceilings; the one Ingrid inherited from her father), I pass a figure, a noirish cartoon of mercury arc light and shadow wedged in a doorway, a little guy with a cell phone, Italianate, pleading in heavily accented German, “I love you, I love you, please…please…tell me what I must do.” It’s a scene from a movie with subtitles I’ll never decipher and sub-plots I’ll never know. And yet it’s the oldest movie on Earth. It’s pre-Colombian, pre-Christian, pre-English.

I love you, I love you… please…

I’ve been there, I’ve cried for love, I’ve never pleaded, I’ve never begged for it, never offered to die or kill for it, but I have cried real tears, tears that felt like they were cut right out of the jelly of each eye with a dull blade but always I was shrewd enough to know that begging never helps. Some of my ex-girlfriends, the ones who no longer speak, who don’t answer my calls and letters, who duck me on the street or actively propagandize against me five, ten, fifteen years after the fact might call me a womanizer. Simply because I didn’t stop at any of them in the long search for my happiness.

What am I, a ball on a roulette wheel?

I’m sure they ascribed it to a short attention span, or adolescent sexual whatever it is, the fact that I often showed signs of restlessness a month or two into it, but nothing could be further from the truth. Both parties (I sound like old Gwenda here: the plaintiff and the defense) are well aware when the fit isn’t right, but only one party ever seems to have the will or the courage to admit it and utter the magic phrase that will dissolve the contract.

-I love you, I love you…please…

The desperation in that guy-in-the-doorway’s voice: I’m haunted by it. It could power an Edward Albee play. A gypsy camp. The energy of an ego collapsing. He reminds me of what it’s like to be young, although he isn’t so young, he looks a bit like Peter Lorre, but being young is being desperate. In my middle-aged wisdom I know too well that if things don’t work with a woman, she isn’t The One and if she isn’t The One, why bother wanting her so much? The answer to that mostly rhetorical question, speaking from experience, is prestige. Prestige plus sexual intoxication, although sexual intoxication is so closely circuited with prestige that it’s technically inaccurate to list them as separate values. Who knows what Peter Lorre’s girlfriend…or ex-girlfriend…looks like. We can’t say with any certainty what his scale of reference is but it’s clear from the force of the pain in his pleading that this woman is a commodity he desperately wants to keep. A beautiful woman is a poor man’s Porsche.

You’re wrapped around each other in bed, auras blended, indulging in sticky warm penetrative intercourse. That high clear chime of addiction you detect above the mechanical comfort of humping is the thrill of possession. You’re thinking, as you pin her gently by the wrists, decorating her perfect face with a garland of worshipful kisses, “She’s mine, all mine, only mine.”

-Maybe she’s a 19 year old girl from the suburbs of Minnesota who looks like Grace Kelly and pees with the bathroom door open, charming you with her bravery. Because what if?

-Maybe she attends a tony hairdressing academy where half the instructors are snobby vain homosexuals who walk as though they’re wearing capes and the other half are aging heterosexual operators, sinewy-single and baked-looking, Roy Scheider in “All That Jazz”.

-Maybe they all hate you, you, a poor boy, a college boy who drives a fifteen year-old rust-scabbed hatchback and owns just three pairs of scuffed shoes who gets to fuck this flickeringly cinematic blonde and all they can do is glare when you drop her off in front of the academy on a brilliant August morning with a lingering kiss plus nuanced references in posture and smirk to sexual taboos that were breached the previous night.

-Or maybe that morning.

-They glare through the green glass walls of the provincially fancy, faux-Manhattan wellness and hair salon and if they could know that you and she had spent the summer in a menage-a-trois with your most recent ex, a tall brunette with cut-glass features and a mild gas problem, a heretic with something to prove in her second-hand suits from travelling salesmen who ranged from Iowa to the Dakotas to Missouri and Illinois, all three dancing together to Bauhaus in neoned clubs and sneaking mathematical fucks in the toilet, they’d hate you even more.

-You want to call me “sexist” because it will feel good.

-We all want to feel good.

Like many young Bohemian romantics, I believed in an anthropomorphic Universe when I was too young to know better. I believed in a Universe that was both aware of my existence and concerned with the delicate work of guiding me with signs and nudges through the maze of its horrors and rewards. Like many middle aged men who have subsequently suffered the scarred disillusionments of common experience, I went from the comfort of my lyrical animism to the bleakness of abject disbelief almost over night: the ‘Universe’ became a vast black mechanical box of perfect coldness and harsh light and I was nothing but a molecule bouncing around in it.

-She’d do a mild kind of hotdogish fart and dare you to say something.

-He wrote none of the above. The above is an impersonation in a deep-yet-fey voice. This is still a third-person narrative. This is still Gwenda and this is my story.

4.

From the age of nine, she’d adopted her Aunt Aggie’s husband Nate as the adult to listen to and emulate in general and follow around like his somber little potbellied squire. When she was free to do with her time as she pleased, she chose to spend it in Uncle Nate’s company. The comedy that she and Nate presented to anyone who might catch them entering a room together or walking up the street in tandem to buy the morning Tribune, two chins lowered and four hands in four pockets, was far from apparent to her at the time. This strange rapport with Uncle Nate, to whom she wasn’t even related by blood, was baffling to the adults in the family but clear enough to her, if not to Nate. Nate was the first person on the planet Earth who’d asked her opinion on an important issue and she’d appreciated that.

They’d been sitting on packing crates after lunch. Nate had come over to help another one of his wife’s sisters to move and his future shadow and his future shadow’s mother had been conscripted, too. It was a depressing little apartment they were gathering into boxes and the one to which all the boxes and furniture were going wasn’t even far enough away to play a good game of running bases between former and future front stoops. It was right next door in a long block of red brick buildings with green paint on the trim. The dented rain gutters and the fake shutters, screwed to the wall.

She was seated in what she thought of as a grownup slouch on a packing crate in a warm spring breeze from the open door when Nate, who was seated on the adjacent packing crate, reading a magazine while everyone waited for the caretaker with his pickle-reek to come and confirm on a checklist that no fixtures had been stolen nor walls violated by nails larger than a certain size and that working lightbulbs had been left in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room sockets. Nate looked over his shoulder at her, obviously disturbed by something he’d just read.

“Let me ask you something, kiddo. Honestly. What does God want from us humans?”

Obviously, in retrospect, it was a rhetorical question. It tickles her now to think that her relationship with Nate (dead ten years next Friday) had been based, initially, on a misunderstanding: a nine year old’s misapprehension of the proper protocol for dealing with a rhetorical question. She’d taken the apparent request for input seriously, flattered beyond any previous value that she’d managed to experience, and worked on the problem with Jesuitical diligence all day, carrying boxes of silverware and small appliances and bags of linen out one door and right back into the next one like a robot, silent, frowning, lips very vaguely mobile with a secret symposium convened to address Nate’s question. At the end of the day, when every item in flat A had been transferred to identical flat B and the grownups were vetting the notion of ordering two or three large pizzas as an unprecedented treat, she approached Nate when they had a moment alone and said,

“He wants us to stop.”

Who wants us to…?”

“You asked what God…”

Uncle Nate was genuinely impressed and so perfectly deserving of his new shadow that he suppressed his first impulse to get his wife’s or sisters-in-laws’ attention in order to announce, “This kid’s a damn genius! Did you hear what she just said?” He played it cool instead.

“Could be,” is all Nate said, with raised eyebrows, and from that day they were almost a father and daughter arrangement. Maybe closer than that. Like salt and pepper; snow and hot cocoa: Nate and his special little Gwenda.

-He taught her the surefire method for charcoal fires.

-He taught her that arm wrestling is all in the wrist.

-He taught her to think before saying thankyou.

-He taught her that Bruce Lee was genuine and that David Carradine was bullshit and that a faculty for detecting the difference could be applied to almost anything in Life.

-Why does Time consume perfectly happy children for the sake of producing all these wretched adults?

5.

I once quipped to someone that suicide is a lot like smoking or drinking: if you don’t try either before the age of nineteen, you probably never will. But I didn’t know what I was talking about when I made that witty remark and there’s some evidence to suggest that the wittier the aphorism, the less it will actually apply to real life. It would have terrified me to know back then that so many years after the remark, I would have nothing and no one and no apparent reason to live. Despite my money; my professional success; my knowledge.

Burdened and blessed with the kind of intelligence that made me the little star of my grammar school and had me bagging college-level reading scores in fifth and sixth grade, I am living proof that while it may be the case that the moderately above average in intelligence have the world on a string, the freakishly gifted are in for tons of trouble.

I remember fresh workbooks were handed out in the first week of second grade, intended to last for half the school year; however, knowing no better, I completed every exercise in my workbook by the end of the day, oblivious to whatever it was the teacher was droning on about at the blackboard while I breezed through the (to me) elementary exercises. All the answers I had filled the blanks with were correct, but rather than being amazed, Mrs. Johnson was angry. And rather than feeling special as a result of my feat, I felt guilty and ashamed.

Any hope of ‘fitting in’ was lost long before that point, and so what it occurred to me to do was apply my intelligence towards money-making and a solid position in society.

Now what?

6.

-A photo of Gwenda at 15.

She had a mild crush (her only foray into what could have been a life-affirming lesbianism if only she were wired that way) on the girl who took the picture and wrote tons of poetry that summer.

i.

a plum is waiting

at the center of the world

for just the right tongue

ii.

is a plum a plum

before you have eaten it?

or just a theorem?

iii.

this plum got warm in

the sun and smelled better than

every one of us

iv.

refrigerated

cinematographically

blue plums at midnight

v.

these plums are famous

for never being those but

what if you mixed them?

vi.

this artist painted

nothing but plums until he

finally got one right

vii.

don’t pay me dollars

pay me in plums but just one

very lovely plum

viii.

la petite mort is

the state of brief amnesia

of the plum just loved 

 

7.

I cried shamelessly in the presence of the doctor and her very young trainee nurse, the first time in my life that I had let myself cry in front of strangers. Part of my blubbing was lack of sleep (the contractions came at 5 a.m.) and part of it was the pain I knew that my lover had gone through to bring our child into the late morning light of the sun. But most of it was mingled grief and gratitude about the distance I had come to the first day of the life I’d always dreamed of. With the circumstantial poetry of so many significant coincidences in this life, the birth happened on the first sunny morning in a months-long block of cold gray gloom. The tears in my eyes as I looked at her refracted brilliant sunlight. I had packed CDs for the birthing room that we never had a chance to use but, still, some delirious hybrid of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Bo Diddley’s Little Girl blasted in my head as I wept and my daughter came forth and the Past made its exit with a blast from my beloved’s operatic screams and yes, yes, yes, our baby girl is beautiful.

-I am smitten.